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Opening day of rockfish season in Maryland.
Opening day of rockfish season in Maryland. (Andr F. Chung, Baltimore Sun)

Moving to counter worrisome declines in one of the East Coast's most prized fish, an interstate commission has ordered a 25 percent cutback in the catch of striped bass along the Atlantic coast next year and a somewhat more gradual reduction by anglers and commercial fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay.

The decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission during its meeting this week in Mystic, Conn., came in response to a warning last year by scientists that striped bass — Maryland's state fish, also known as rockfish — were on the verge of being overfished. Experts predicted the number of spawning females would slip to unsustainable levels within the next year or so.

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For Atlantic coast anglers, the cutback will mean they can catch only one fish of 28 inches or longer a day, instead of two. In the bay, the new restrictions likely will require increasing the minimum catchable size of the popular fish for recreational anglers, and a reduction in the number that can be harvested in the fall and winter by watermen.

While anglers along the coast, especially in New England, have been complaining for several years that the number of striped bass have dwindled, fisheries managers for Maryland and Virginia have countered that the bay population is relatively bountiful. The vast majority of spawning-age female fish are caught as they migrate along the Atlantic coast, they have argued, while the bay catch is mainly of smaller male fish.

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But without any scientific analysis of bay fish abundance, the commission made only a modest allowance — calling for a cut of 20.5 percent over the next two years in the catch of male fish in the Chesapeake.

Tony Friedrich, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, called the commission's decision a "good management outcome." He said anglers had wanted regulators to act before a true crisis could develop.

"The system corrected itself, identified the problem and took action to set it right before we reached the point of no-return," he said.

William Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the catch curbs would require "belt tightening" for recreational anglers and also for charterboat businesses, watermen and others who earn a living on rockfish. But Goldsborough, a Maryland representative on the commission, called the cutback warranted, even if it went beyond what may be needed to eventually restore fish numbers.

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"They erred on the side of the resource, both with respect to the bay and the coast, in my opinion," he said. Striped bass declined so severely in the 1970s and 1980s that Maryland imposed a five-year fishing moratorium for them, with other states making severe catch cuts as well.

Dave Smith, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association, said his group would keep pressing for a study of the bay rockfish population "so Maryland doesn't get unjust reductions."

"If we want to decrease mortality on the breeders," Smith said, "we should look to the coastal states as they fish on them nearly 100 percent of the time, [whereas] Maryland fishes on them a fraction of the time."

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